how do deans support students

The Art of Narrative Healing — Dean Amy Nawrocki’s Journey to Inspiring Student Success

“Memory is a thing; remembering is an action, ongoing. We pause and reflect, let scenes take shape, then relive them.”

Amy Nawrocki, The Comet’s Tail

As with many roles in higher education, the exact duties of a dean remain a mystery to most students. Indeed, the scope of a dean’s duties aren’t easy to summarize in a single sentence. From advising students and faculty to community outreach and curricula development, a dean’s work is never over.

Being an author first and foremost at heart, it seems fitting that Amy Nawrocki uses an analogy to describe the function of her role as Dean of Science and Society. “A dean helps ensure that everything happening in their college fits into the big picture of the University as a whole — making sure everything aligns with our mission,” she describes. “It’s kind of like a tree spreading everything through its roots to help nourish the tree as a whole entity. That’s how I think of it, and how it’s been for me.”

While some see the role of a dean as one of oversight, Amy takes a more holistic approach — rooted not in overseeing others but in advising and guiding them. “As a leader, I support initiatives from students and faculty — basically providing whatever they need. I help professors grow their programs, but it’s also about helping students find their way through their undergraduate or graduate programs.”

Although her professional course has charted a linear path — from English professor to department chair and coordinator — Amy never accepted roles with the intent to climb a career ladder. Reflecting on her appointment as Dean, Amy remarks that the opportunity was unexpected.  “I wouldn’t have called my previous roles stepping stones. Quite frankly, I never saw myself in this role, but when the opportunity presented itself to me, I had a lot of support and encouragement. I started in August 2023 at the end of the summer semester. A lot of what I did over the summer involved transitioning. I had the benefit of working with former CSS Dean Dr. Kitty Engelmann as Associate Dean.”

It began with writing  

Our most formative experiences often encompass the unplanned. Still, it may come as a surprise to learn that Amy Nawrocki never specifically sought a career in higher education.

Her road to the classroom didn’t begin with a decision to teach — instead, the first spark was lit by her passion for the written word. “Freshman and sophomore year of high school, I began gravitating to literature,” Nawrocki reflects. “Sometimes, it was about academic success. Other times, it was about finding solace in literature, which led me to explore creative writing.”

Embarking on her first year at Sarah Lawrence College, poetry was the path Nawrocki pursued. “For a first-year seminar, we had to take a core class,” she recounts. “You put down your top three choices. I don’t know if I put literature or fiction-writing, but I ended up in a poetry-writing class.”

Although poetry may not have been her first choice, Nawrocki found it was the perfect fit. “My sensibilities as a writer are more suited to poetry than prose fiction,” she shares. “I just found a home in poetry. In addition to writing poetry, I studied its form and theory.”

An odyssey interrupted

Nawrocki’s college career began unfolding like that of many first-year students. While she experienced the familiar growing pains of adjusting to higher education, the start of her time at Sarah Lawrence was also teeming with enthusiasm, creativity, and curiosity.

Yet in the summer following her first year, Amy’s journey was jolted from its tracks when she contracted encephalitis. Marked by inflammation of the brain, encephalitis is an elusive infection. Often difficult to diagnose, the consequences can be catastrophic. Affecting the brain and body, the symptoms of this life-threatening illness range from seizures and speech difficulties to paralysis and memory loss.

At only nineteen years old, Amy began experiencing these symptoms. Following a swift hospitalization, medical specialists were mystified. Debating the nature of her condition, some even cast doubts as to whether her symptoms were purely psychological.

After determining the infection in her brain was caused by a virus, Nawrocki’s physicians and family made a difficult decision. Placing Nawrocki into a medically induced coma, the doctors facilitated a high-risk healing process which, against all odds, rid her of the symptoms threatening her life.

Regaining rhythm  

For Amy, the most traumatic elements of this experience did not entail medical tubes or white coats. Instead, it was the loss of her memories. From the time Amy began experiencing symptoms to her subsequent recovery, over half a year had passed without her recalling what occurred.

In the wake of her recovery, Amy needed to relearn the essential skills many take for granted — including writing. But at that time, continuing her work as a poet was not a priority. “I don’t remember being goal-oriented or conscious of my motivations, but that’s also part of recovery. You don’t necessarily think about it. You just do it.”

“It is not false modesty which detaches me now from the notion of a heroic return from unconsciousness. I want to be the girl who rebelliously poked her tongue out and stuck her middle finger up at doctors who only saw surfaces. But I can remember her, and without that, I have no agency to see what I did as miraculous. I want the music of spheres, but all I have is spacedust.”

-Amy Nawrocki, The Comet’s Tail

Recounting what she can of the recovery process, Amy attests the path was uncertain and unsteady. Even as her memory reawakened, whether she would return to Sarah Lawrence remained indefinite. “At the time, my plans had to change because I couldn’t go back, reinvent my life, or just step back into the life I had lived,” she shares candidly. “The goal was always to return to college. That didn’t change, but it was difficult recognizing that may not be possible due to what had happened.”

Yet with steady footing and a strong will, Amy continued progressing toward her goals. “When I began taking classes again, the first step was Western Connecticut State University because it was easier for me to live at home when I started,” she recalls. “Then, I went back to Sarah Lawrence, easing into it as a part-time student.”

Amy proudly completed her undergraduate degree in poetry in 1996. Reclaiming her voice as a learner and poet was a return to the essential self — laying stones for the next steps of Amy’s journey.


Whether you plan to pursue graduate school, dive into the field, or are uncertain of your post-college goals, University of Bridgeport has your back. With resources ranging from tutoring and counseling to career development and internship opportunities, UB will help you navigate your next steps. Learn about beginning your UB journey today!   


An unexpected arc

After completing her first degree, Amy surveyed the options at her feet — her affinity for poetry acting as a compass as she crafted the path ahead. Mindfully making her next move, she balanced the aspirational with the practical. “I didn’t ever tell myself I’d be a professional poet because I knew that wasn’t something I could realistically make a living doing.”

Wanting to remain immersed in art and literature, Amy decided to pursue her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing. When she made this choice, she didn’t realize it would lead her to answer a second, unexpected calling — teaching and inspiring students. “When I went for my MFA at the University of Arkansas, I had a graduate assistantship. It was basically teaching composition in exchange for tuition. That made me see teaching as my career path.”

In many ways, this decision sculpted a full circle, curved by irony and serendipity alike. “My mom was a first and second-grade teacher, and my dad taught special education and later became a middle school guidance counselor. I never consciously said I would be an educator just because both my parents were. It came about through my gravitation towards art, and it was very organic.”

Breaking in her teaching shoes

As Amy began her assistantship, she found herself in the shoes of an instructor for the first time. As it so happens, those shoes were leather Steve Madden knockoffs.

Before beginning to teach, Amy gained some background in pedagogical theory. “I think there was a two-week boot camp where they showed us strategies for teaching composition and rhetoric,” she recollects. “One of the pedagogical concepts we discussed was the lead-up to teaching, like building rapport with students. I don’t know if it was suggested to me, but I got the idea of doing attendance and getting to know the students by having them fill out index cards.”

While this idea seemed simple in execution, Amy’s first day of teaching didn’t go according to plan. “The first day of class was a Tuesday. University of Arkansas has a huge campus, and the bookstore where I had to pick up the index cards was far from the building where I was teaching my class,” she explains. “I went to the bookstore, and the line was out the door. My class started at 11:00. It was already 10:45, but I was committed to getting these index cards. I had to decide to stay in line and pay for my cards or leave. I stayed in line.”

Amused in hindsight, Amy recounts the panicked realization that she would be late for her first class. “I don’t remember the exact timeline, but I knew I was going to be late,” she relates. “I was panicked and flustered. I was wearing pretty new shoes. I started running, thinking I didn’t want to be as late as possible on my first day. The shoes were killing me — and Arkansas in August is hot. So, I took them off and kept running.”

Upon reaching her destination, the stress and panic of Amy’s cross-campus relay caught up with her. “I walked into class, telling the students I was sorry for being late. I was crying. I took a few minutes to compose myself, and then we started going over the syllabus.”

As Amy concluded and dismissed her class, her trying morning took a turn for the triumphant. “A group of three or four students walked up to me and said, ‘We just wanted to say it’s our first day, too.’”

That moment of solidarity would come to define Amy’s approach to teaching. “That was the first teaching experience I had that truly struck me,” she says. “It gave me the sense that we were all in it together.”

The Comet’s Tail

Amy may not still slip her Steve Maddens on, but she’s used them well at University of Bridgeport. “When I was teaching writing classes, I usually put the shoes on my desk as a first-day prompt. I put a bunch of other items on the desk, too, so students can brainstorm and free-write.”

Beyond serving as a writing exercise, Amy uses the shoes as a jumping off point — telling anxious undergraduates the story of her own nerve-wracking first day. “The takeaway was to be open-minded and pivot. And to wear comfortable shoes,” she laughs.

This isn’t the only part of Amy’s journey she’s connected back to the classroom. In 2018, she gained a sense of closure on a traumatic chapter of her own life — penning and publishing The Comet’s Tail, which she began using as a resource for reading and writing in her classes.

A memoir of her year-long road recovering from encephalitis, the story wasn’t easy to tell — especially considering memoir writing typically hinges on memory. Given Amy can’t recall the majority of what occurred, the process of piecing together her narrative was complex — often echoing the work of a detective discerning clues to understand the intricacies of a story. “I was writing it after 25 years, which is a long time, right? The process of writing it was kind of like a research paper. I didn’t know much of what happened, so I had to get medical records and go through and sort all these materials.”

“For a long time, I put that half-year away. Mapped in invisible ink, the secret short cut to present tense does not show up, even in the ultraviolet light of memory. Drafts and redrafts skip over the recovery roadblocks of embarrassment and easy silence. I didn’t like talking about it anyway. When life goes on, the old script folds faultlessly, slipped into a box in the closet, easily moved across state lines, untraceable in the memory palace.”

-Amy Nawrocki, The Comet’s Tail

Performing a research project about oneself can seem surreal. But at the same time, Amy found the experience offered an enlightening change in perspective. “When I was coming out of the coma, I didn’t know what my personality was. I had to find myself and fit back into this world where things were frustrating, and I didn’t understand why. But looking back, I got a sense of what the doctors must have been going through.”

Amy continues, “The situation was difficult for everyone involved. I felt a lot of compassion and empathy for my father and siblings, my aunts and uncles, and the friends who always supported me. I could talk to some of them, and I did, but I was finally able to turn the lens out from myself and see how it affected them. I began understanding what it meant to go through that situation from their perspectives.”

Bringing her story to UB

In teaching The Comet’s Tail to UB undergraduates, Amy finds it to be a vehicle not only for teaching genre theory but for inspiring her students to craft their memoirs.

These exercises don’t just serve English majors, either. From Amy’s firsthand experience, having students of all backgrounds write their memoirs is an enriching experience. “Some students study Psychology, Human Services, or a health science, and this can help shape their understanding of that,” she offers. “It helps provide a holistic education.”

Understanding the nature of the topic at hand, Amy takes a delicate approach. “When I’ve taught The Comet’s Tail in classes, I’m very sensitive to the fact that what happened to me occurred at the end of my freshmen year, and many of my students are reading it during that period in their own lives.”

Although the topic is a delicate matter, Amy’s teaching helps students understand the healing offered by putting pain into words — aiding them in becoming more effective writers. “Usually, I introduce it as a memoir or medical narrative. I talk about the structure and use it to explain the narrative point of view. We also talk about autobiographical writing and sequence in creative writing.”

She continues, “Then when I assign a narrative project in that context, they share a lot themselves. I hope it encourages them in their own writing. I give them parameters because not everyone has had that kind of medical experience, so I’ve had a lot of students write about family members or aspects of their own mental health that have affected their lives.”

Unwritten resolution

Perhaps the biggest challenge of being appointed Dean of the College of Science and Society has been striking a new balance between art and academia. In the midst of a busy schedule, Amy attests that writing requires you to take advantage of the time you have. “When you have the energy to do a few lines, you can progress from there,” she offers. “Commit to three lines. Commit to five lines, or commit to 100 words.”

Amy still finds opportunities to use poetry writing as a method of self-restoring expression. “As part of my practice has been finding ways to experiment with form and structure to shape my free writing or my scribbles, I call them. I have notebooks all over the place, but as a poet, the goal is to shape the chaos of my mind into something that is art.”

As Dean, Amy also finds herself stepping back from the classroom. “I haven’t taught yet since becoming dean, but I’m contemplating teaching next fall. That’s one thing I don’t want to lose, and I’m hoping to continue.”

Regardless, Amy still has words of wisdom to offer UB students. “Be mindful of what’s going on in your head and lead by example,” she advises. “If you’re stressed or overwhelmed, pause to assess things before you react. Give yourself the time and space to manage emotions, frustrations, and stress. Make sure you manage your responsibilities in a way that still allows you to be healthy and happy.”

To explore Amy’s poetry and other literary works, visit her online at


At UB, #UBelong. See yourself at UB — learn more about becoming a Purple Knight today!